Apple has stumbled in its efforts to win the voice computing wars, and it's pretty far behind its competitors in the virtual reality/mixed reality field. But if a new report is true, Apple is aiming to have a headset ready by 2020 that goes beyond anything we've ever seen. Take this all with a large grain of salt.
According to CNET, Apple isn't looking to limit itself to one field of reality beyond our own. Instead, it hopes to release a headset that handles both AR and VR (Microsoft calls this combination mixed reality), according to a single source cited in the report who is "familiar with Apple's plans".
The device is reportedly code-named T288, the same code name Bloomberg attributed to an in-development AR headset late last year. CNET doesn't have a ton of details, but it does have some specs that seem... ambitious.
Most surprising is the claim that the device will feature two 8K displays, one for each eye. It will reportedly be "untethered", but it will rely on a wireless connection to a dedicated box that houses a custom-built 5nm processor. The box is said to resemble a PC tower and would run a new operating system.
Location tracking will be built into the headset and won't require external sensors, according to the report. That's a kind of tracking currently known as "inside out" tracking.
First of all, the idea of a dedicated box handling the processing and communicating with the device wirelessly sounds like the most plausible aspect of the rumours. Here are the specs listed in the report:
The box would use a wireless technology called 60GHz WiGig, the person familiar with Apple's plans said. A second-generation version, called 802.11ay, would boost speeds and range and make the technology more attractive for high-end VR headsets that aren't tethered to computers. A final version of WiGig 2.0 likely won't arrive until 2019.
Intel is working with HTC to bring the same wireless tech to the Vive, and it's been showing off demos at events since last year.
Also, Microsoft has integrated position tracking into its Windows 10 mixed reality platform.
But that project is quite a bit more primitive than what it sounds like Apple may be going for. The cheaper headsets that are running Microsoft's tech are very basic, and they're really just VR. They're a gateway drug to indoctrinating users into mixed reality productivity, and the public has shown little interest. According to the report, however, Apple wants to do everything at an insane resolution.
More than anything, the 8K displays and custom processor seem like the hardest thing to pull off here. We've heard that Apple is planning to cut ties with Intel by 2020 and will focus on developing its own ARM-based processors. Apple is good at making efficient mobile processors, but its most advanced model today is the 10-nanometre A11 Bionic processor in the iPhone X.
Nothing on the market is 5-nanometres, and that would be a couple of generations ahead of what we have today. And absolutely no VR device is delivering a combined 16K experience at the high frame rates necessary to make the experience comfortable.
So, does Apple have the expertise to pull this off? Are we just being naive, and is this actually where the whole industry will be in the next two years? How much will this dang thing cost?!
The Gizmodo staff seems to be split on how impressive this plan is. Some think HTC could hit the same specs at the same time, others think we're going to be struggling with every nanometre of progress in the coming years. Several of my colleagues think it's all garbage if it isn't mobile.
Of course, Apple's also rumoured to be working on its own AR smart glasses that would scratch the mobile itch, and possibly use the same OS as this more powerful device. That raises the question of what exactly this 16K monster is for.
If it's primarily a VR device, it will be niche as hell. Microsoft's Hololens dev kits go for $4369. This thing is supposed to do VR and AR, and it's by Apple! $$$$$. So, it would seem reasonable to assume, if this rumour is true, that Apple wants to make a definitive all-in-one device that would handle state-of-the-art VR and be a productivity machine, too.
Microsoft has been chipping away at Apple's stranglehold on the prosumer section of the creative market. The iMac Pro and overhauled Mac Pro are intended to grab back some of those losses. And it's easy to imagine the "T288" as Apple's attempt to plant its flag as the destination for content creators in the AR and VR fields.
Apple needs a win. Its reputation as an innovator is teetering on a precipice. We're definitely going to get some sort of AR device from Apple in the next few years - Tim Cook has been pretty clear in his hints on that point. The good news is that Apple is the opposite of Magic Leap; not only will Apple not overpromise, it won't promise anything at all. We'll know what the thing is when the thing is done.